Ernesto Jimenez was just a year old when his parents decided to move their family from Mexico to the United States. Ernesto, now an 18-year-old student at the University of Texas at Austin, was too young to remember that day, but he says his parents remember it as if it was yesterday.
“It was one of the toughest and scariest days of their life up until now,” Ernesto says.
Ernesto is one of about 800,000 young immigrants in the U.S. temporarily protected from deportation by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an executive order President Barack Obama issued in 2012. The future is uncertain for these immigrants, who were brought to the U.S. before they turned 16 — many of them toddlers when they arrived — and now face President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ promise to end the program unless Congress acts.
But this isn’t the first time people who are covered by DACA have been met with challenging obstacles that threatened their very livelihood, and unfortunately, it likely won’t be the last. Here are two of their stories.
After coming to the United States at the age of 1, Ernesto Jimenez grew up in a small trailer in the town of Mission, Texas, less than 15 miles north of the Mexican border. His family spoke only Spanish at home, as did the other kids who lived on his block, so Spanish became his first language.
When he turned 4, Ernesto started elementary school, where he was obliged to begin learning English. He found reading and writing in English relatively easy to pick up with practice, but speaking was a whole different animal.
“Throughout my school years, even now, someone will point out how I mispronounce a word and make it a point to joke about it,” Ernesto says. “This includes people I don’t know, often making fun of my pronouncing and causing me to be insecure of the way I talk.”
But his struggle with language learning was minuscule compared to the challenges that were to come. Fast forward to 2012, when DACA was implemented. Ernesto was overjoyed. He said the program changed his life for the better by making him feel safe and giving him the opportunity to travel to other states. DACA also allowed him to work to help him pay for college and provide for his family members, who were living off of his father’s annual income of less than $10,000.
“I wanted to help my father … who, when it’s burning hot and when it’s freezing cold, is doing labor that many wouldn’t want to do,” Ernesto says.
Ernesto took full advantage of the employment opportunities made available by DACA. Over the summer, he took a job as a hotel housekeeper by day and as a cook at the local Dairy Queen by night. On weekends he would wake up early to mow his neighbors’ lawns for a little extra cash.
“I felt like someone picked up the world and intentionally dropped it on me.”
Ernesto graduated from high school in the top seven percent of his class. Last month, he started his freshman year at UT-Austin, majoring in Radio-Television-Film. And then, suddenly, everything changed.
“When President Trump decided to end DACA, I was in my science class feeling accomplished, as I had always dreamed of attending UT-Austin,” Ernesto said.
But he says when he stepped outside of the classroom and got the notification on his phone, his spirits sank.
“I felt like someone picked up the world and intentionally dropped it on me,” Ernesto said. “I could not concentrate for the rest of the day, and I had a million thoughts going on in my head.”
He feared he would be deported to Mexico — a country he has no memory of, a country he hasn’t seen for 17 years.
“That day, fear, anxiety and sadness replaced the happiness, hope and faith that filled me.”
Though he’s still concerned about what the future holds, Ernesto has no plans of giving up. He says his dream is to be a songwriter and music producer, creating songs with positive messages to inspire others. That positivity isn’t feigned; it’s intrinsic to Ernesto and the way he views life.
“I will continue to wake up every morning with a smile on my face and with a faith much bigger and stronger than the day before,” Ernesto says. “No one will stop me from dreaming.”
Miguel Tapia Colin’s mother was pushing for a move from Mexico to the United States even before she was pregnant with him. She knew the economic and educational opportunities would be better in the United States, and she wanted what was best for her family. His father, on the other hand, was reluctant to move to a new country and leave his parents alone in Mexico. So they stayed put for the time being.
They were still in Mexico when Miguel was born, but they decided shortly after that it was time to start their new life. His father moved first — to Wilmington, Delaware — so he could find a home, get a job, and establish the family before Miguel and his mother made the journey north.
When Miguel was 2, he and his mother came to the United States with the help of a ” coyote,” a human smuggler who sneaks immigrants across the U.S.-Mexico border (for a hefty fee). Miguel said he wishes his family could have immigrated legally, but that just wasn’t an option.
“The immigration system is so broken,” Miguel said. “My parents needed to provide [proof of] an education, which my father didn’t have because they were really poor. My mom did have an education, but that wasn’t enough.”
Miguel and his mother joined his father in Wilmington and began their new life. Miguel enrolled in a Head Start program, where he began learning English. He picked up the language through interactions at school and with his friends, but not at home, where only Spanish was spoken.
“My mom forbade me from speaking English at home up until I was about a teenager,” Miguel recalls. “She wanted me to keep both languages.”
In the early years, Miguel faced a very specific obstacle: He knew enough English that he wasn’t considered an English as a Second Language student, but he sometimes struggled with his classes, which were targeted toward native English speakers.
“I remember struggling with some of my homework, and my mom wasn’t really able to help because she herself didn’t know as much English,” Miguel said. “I probably knew more than her. But after a certain period, I overcame it … It was almost as if I was a fluent, native English speaker.”
“Just stay hopeful. Keep moving forward. Everything will be alright in the end.”
Miguel says DACA was implemented at a crucial time for him. He was a sophomore in high school and starting to think about college. He was also approaching the age where he could legally work without restrictions. Before DACA was announced, Miguel was upset about the hurdles he would have to jump over in order to live his life.
“I don’t think it was fear but it was frustration … I was a straight-A student, I was top of my class, very involved … And then you have to think about, oh my God, I assume I’m going to be able to graduate from high school, but what’s going to come after that?”
Miguel said he worried about not being able to work and about the future of his education, as many colleges weren’t openly accepting undocumented students. DACA alleviated those concerns and empowered him to get a job, get a driver’s license and travel to visit colleges around the country. He settled on Columbia University, where he’s currently a junior majoring in political science. He also works as an administrative assistant for the business school.
Trump’s decision to rescind DACA didn’t come as a surprise to Miguel, who has been on heightened alert since last year when he realized Trump had a real shot of getting elected. It may not have shocked him, but the DACA announcement still had a deep impact on Miguel and his hopes for the future.
“It was just devastating,” Miguel says. “I could not concentrate. It was like, wow, I’m in this place of privilege; I’m in this place that I felt so comfortable in. What’s going to happen after this? I’m going to have to deal with being in school, living in one of the most expensive cities in the world without being able to work, and with all of these opportunities, all of a sudden taken away from me.”
Miguel hasn’t been back to Mexico since the day he moved to the United States. He hasn’t seen his grandparents, and his mom hasn’t seen her parents, in 17 years. He says getting deported would be extremely challenging, as he and his family have become so accustomed to the American way of life. He feels like an American citizen, only without the legal documents to make it official. Yet, he still feels connected to his roots.
“I’m proud of my Mexican heritage, but I would definitely consider myself more a Mexican-American than just an American or just a Mexican.”
Miguel says he’s nervous about the future, but he’s trying to focus on the present, on his studies and his work. And perhaps most importantly, he’s not letting go of hope. He was heavily involved in advocacy work when the DREAM Act was debated in 2010 (and ultimately failed), but he believes the fight has changed.
“I’m seeing that now there’s much more support and much more awareness of this issue, so I’m very hopeful of what can happen,” Miguel says.
His message to other DACA recipients: “Just stay hopeful. Keep moving forward. Everything will be alright in the end.”
Miguel is following his own advice. He’s looking ahead to his dream of getting a law degree. He wants to practice immigration law.